CHAMPAIGN — Police say weather has been a good indicator of what kind of problems they will face on Unofficial St. Patrick's Day.
But if this year's forecast holds true, the party might be as unpredictable as the storms.
Green-clad and liquored-up, students and their guests are expected to swarm Campustown Friday to celebrate the early St. Patrick's Day. "Unofficial" is best characterized as a daylong drinking endeavor, with students waking early on Friday to crack their first beer and not stopping until the early morning hours of Saturday.
It has historically caused problems for police: Last year, they issued 364 Unofficial-related tickets in Champaign and Urbana. Extra trips to the emergency room have been recorded in the past, and at least two people have died in Unofficial-related accidents during its 16-year history.
Law enforcement strategies play a big role in how many tickets police hand out, said Champaign police Lt. Brad Yohnka, but the weather can also predict specifically what kinds of problems police will have.
On a nice day like the 2009 celebration, when students were warmed by 72-degree temperatures and a sunny sky, they'll be outside. Police issued 351 tickets that time.
"People make their way up on the roofs, and they're outside doing crazier stuff," Yohnka said.
That's one set of problems for police — more people will be walking in the streets and on sidewalks with open alcohol.
During the past couple years, officials have been particularly concerned about apartment balconies. They worry about revelers throwing dangerous objects from on high or overcrowded balconies that are susceptible to collapse.
They've even seen people climbing up or down from one floor to another. In 2009, a man was seriously injured when he fell while trying to climb up to a fourth-floor balcony.
On the other hand, police might look at a year like 2010 differently. Colder weather may have led to fewer tickets: 269.
"If it's nasty, it's going to cut down on a lot of our outside problems," Yohnka said.
But that presents an entirely different issue. Maybe it will keep a drunken student from passing out in a front lawn or underage celebrants from crowding a balcony, but at least those issues are a beacon that there's a problem party inside.
"If people aren't outside, and we're not getting calls for service, there's no way we're going to know there's a problem or issue," Yohnka said.
It's not a scientifically sound methodology, though. The high temperature on Unofficial last year was 60 degrees, and the parties continued under rainy skies.
Not only did police issue the most Unofficial-related tickets since they began keeping track, but a 21-year-old UI student was also killed crossing University Avenue against the light in Urbana. Brad Bunte was intoxicated and believed to have been participating in Unofficial activities.
Ticket counts are only one barometer of the size and potency of the party.
"It is a barometer of how many people are here, and if they're outside, there are probably going to be more tickets," Yohnka said.
Police monitor social media to gauge how many people might be expected. Last year, 23,000 said they were attending on Facebook or other websites. On Thursday, Yohnka said police have counted 8,800 this year.
Enforcement strategies also affect the ticket tally. Last year, for example, police cracked down on out-of-towners who did not really have anywhere to go. They were often found walking the streets with open alcohol.
"We had our street sweep teams really hitting that hard to make it not so much fun," Yohnka said.
Severe storms this year could help police manage the party, Yohnka said. "We hope."